Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 952
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is a subtle, oblique attempt to transcend time and persuade the reader of the simultaneity of past, present, and future. Whitman shed light on the poem in the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass: “Past and present are not disjoin’d but joined. The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is. . . . He . . . places himself where the future becomes present.” The poem is also rich in imagery that suggests the coexistence of opposite values, such as fixity and motion, rest and activity, time and eternity.
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is divided into nine sections. In the first section, the poet observes the crowds of people crossing the East River to Manhattan by ferry and thinks of those who will be making the crossing in years to come. He develops this thought in section 2, as he contemplates the ties that bind him to the people of the future. In a hundred years, others will be seeing the same landmarks, the same sunset, the same ebb and flow of the tides. The speaker also hints that the scene he contemplates forms part of a grand, spiritual “scheme” of life, in which everything possesses its own individuality yet is part of the whole. That sense of wholeness has power to impart glory to all the poet’s daily activities and sense perceptions. The poet makes this hint explicit at the end of the poem.
Having evoked the passage of time and underscored it with images of flux—the tide, the sunset—the poet in section 3 does everything he can to negate it: “It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,/ I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence.” Whatever future generations might see, the poet has also seen. He recalls the many times he has crossed the river by ferry, and he catalogs the sights that met his gaze: steamboats and schooners, sloops and barges, circling seagulls, sailors at work, the flags of many nations, the fires from the foundry chimneys on the shore. Most notable in this section are the images that combine motion and stasis and that reinforce the theme of time which is no-time. The poet pictures the people who stand still on the rail of the ferry “yet hurry with the swift current,” and he observes the seagulls “with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies.” Underlying the whole section (indeed, the whole poem) is the great central symbol of the river, forever flowing, yet forever appearing the same.
After the recapitulation that makes up the fourth section, sections 5 and 6 take the theme to a more intimate level. The poet again asserts that time and place do not separate. Now, however, instead of evoking sense perceptions only, he asserts that the thoughts and feelings experienced by future generations have been his, too. His soul knew periods of darkness and aridity; he, too, experienced self-doubt, and he committed most of the sins of which humanity is capable. In this respect he was one with everyone else, whether present or future.
Section 7 is a direct address to the reader of the future. The poet’s tone becomes increasingly intimate and personal as he suggests that he is drawing ever closer to the reader. Three rhetorical questions follow, the last of which suggests a linking of past and future that is at once mysterious and mystical: “Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you...
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cannot see me?” This implies that the fullest human self is part of a larger entity which is not subject to the limitations of time or space and which endures through all things. Because of this, the awakened consciousness of the poet (or of any man or woman) may perceive past, present, and future fused into a single enlightened moment.
The rhetorical questions continue in section 8, at the end of which the poet hints cryptically and conspiratorially that his purpose has been accomplished obliquely: The reader has accepted what the poet promised, without him even mentioning what it was. Poet and reader have accomplished what could not be accomplished by study or preaching.
The final section begins with an apostrophe to the river—which also symbolizes the world of time and change—urging it to continue its eternal ebb and flow. More apostrophes follow, in excited and exclamatory vein—to the clouds at sunset, to Manhattan and Brooklyn, to life itself. This section is both a recapitulation and a renewed celebration of what the poet has earlier described—the everyday sights and sounds encountered while crossing the river—but now with the separation between past and future irrevocably broken (or so the poet would believe) in the reader’s mind.
In the final lines of the poem, the poet reveals the deepest reasons for his wish that the myriad phenomena of the natural and human world should continue to flourish, with even greater intensity, in the vast sea of time. They are all “dumb, beautiful ministers”: Through the material forms of temporal life, the poet and the reader (now no longer referred to as “I” and “you” but as “we”), having engaged in the process of revelation which is the poem, are able to perceive the eternal, spiritual dimensions of existence. This conclusion has already been suggested by a marvelous image in section 3, when the poet, looking into the sunlit water, sees “fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head.” In section 9 the image is repeated and universalized: Those who gaze deeply into the flux will also see their own heads aureoled in splendid, radiating light.